Shakespeare for the Masses

By Asquith, Clare | The American Conservative, August 25, 2008 | Go to article overview

Shakespeare for the Masses


Asquith, Clare, The American Conservative


"THE GREATEST ADVANTAGE of Shakespeare studies," grumbles one scholar, "seems to be that questions may be asked over and over again, and that almost nobody pays attention to the answers." Evidence that much Shakespeare scholarship is indeed a dialogue of the deaf may be found in the current controversy over Shakespeare's religion, an arena in which identical historical material is wheeled out repeatedly by every side as conclusive proof of its own argument and just as repeatedly ignored.

Most contemporary biographers opt for a secular Shakespeare whose standpoint was that of an enlightened Renaissance humanist detached from the religious disputes of his day. Joseph Pearce takes the opposing view. He cites evidence that Shakespeare remained a Catholic throughout his life, and Pearce fights his unpopular corner with the vigor of one of his earlier biographical subjects, G.K. Chesterton: "It does beggar belief," he exclaims, "that writers as accomplished as [Peter] Ackroyd and [Anthony] Holden can write full-length biographies of Shakespeare without seeing the Catholic truth that is literally and literarily staring them in the face."

For Pearce, the facts speak for themselves. But the secularists also claim a monopoly on the facts. The problem is that the facts themselves are notoriously slippery. Did Shakespeare's father, John, retire from civic life because of debt or because of his Catholicism? Is the "testament" confirming his Catholicism genuine or a crafty fake? Did his famous son avoid paying taxes out of stinginess or because of his religion? Did Shakespeare purchase New Place in Stratford to assist its bankrupted recusant owners, or was it simply an opportunist investment? How reliable is the famous pronouncement by a 17th-century Anglican clergyman that Shakespeare "died a Papist"?

Writing and arguing with admirable clarity, Pearce sets out to correct what he sees as the skewed historical perspective that makes questions like these so problematic. He makes no claims to original research. His book highlights instead the neglected work of biographers who have over the past century argued for Shakespeare's Catholicism, in particular Peter Milward, Mutschmann and Wentersdorf, Hugh Ross Williamson, and Ian Wilson. Wherever possible Pearce calls on the recent work of the "spotlessly secular" Michael Wood to confirm their findings.

In spite of his own evident conviction, Pearce's approach is judicious. Weighing the pros and cons of a favorite Catholic theory that Shakespeare travelled with the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion to work as a tutor at Hoghton Tower in Lancashire, he rightly concludes that in the end "we cannot know, for certain, one way or the other." But he makes a persuasive case for the reassessment of other familiar landmarks in Shakespeare's life.

Secularist biographers fail to mention the significance of John Shakespeare's refusal to pay a government levy in the 1580s. This tax was imposed specifically on Catholic recusants as a punitive contribution to Elizabeth's campaigns against foreign Catholic threats; John Shakespeare's fellow defaulters were all Catholic.

Pearce also has an intriguing take on the Somerville case. John Somerville, a Catholic neighbor and relative of the Shakespeares, died in prison in 1583 after threatening to kill the queen. …

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